Messing with Manners

When we come to discuss particular points of social etiquette, it’s important to look at the big, bigger, and biggest picture.  Most of the rules regarding manners were established hundreds of years ago and have been honored and acknowledged for generations by our own ancestors and all their aunts and uncles. I dare say that your great-grandma was telling your grandfather at the table not to chew with his mouth open, to put his napkin on his lap, and not to talk with his mouth full. Let’s hear it for good manners! But manners were made for man, not man for the manners.

A bunch of these older traditions and social expectations have morphed and evolved into their present forms, and for good reason. I can remember reading through a old book on etiquette and breathing a sigh of relief that we have moved on from some of those out-dated customs. But we still have many cultural expectations, especially regarding weddings and showers, funerals and anniversaries, graduations and birthdays. Sometimes necessity dictates that we mess with some of the standards of accepted social etiquette.

For example, our congregation is large, and we have lots of growing families. Some years ago we moved away from having the traditional baby and wedding showers because we were faced with a choice: either we would have to exclude most of the women in the congregation from the guest list, or we would have to restructure the shower format. We opted for the latter. And with the growing number of showers, if we wanted to enable the women to attend, we would have to make them shorter events. So we began having open-house showers, and we used the church email to send out the invitations. You have to realize that a normal shower around here will have thirty or more ladies attend. We can’t exactly plan a sit-down luncheon for that many ladies, and with a shower or two every other week or two, most women would not be able to afford the time to attend so many social events. But we wanted to keep up the church-wide celebrations, so we made a change for what we considered to be good reasons.  No one had their feathers ruffled that I know of. In fact, there was a big sigh of relief on all fronts! And they are lovely events, with beautiful spreads of food and piles of gifts. And most of the recipients still send out thank-you notes (not because it is a rule….simply a lovely custom).

Now of course, we do not expect other women in other communities to adopt our method of shower-giving unless it would be helpful to them. We are not trying to change the world; we are merely trying to keep some sanity in our own shower-giving. Is our method of shower-giving an innovation? Yes. Is it sin? No. Might someone wonder what in the world we are doing? Yes.

They may think we are stepping high, wide, and handsome. They may be surprised that we don’t send out stamped invitations, play shower games, and sit in a circle watching the guest of honor open her gifts. Who do we think we are anyway? And it would be easy for us to respond that we are not bound to give showers the way our ancestors did just because. But I don’t think that’s a good answer. We ought to have a good reason if we are going to go messing around with the traditions of  our mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers before us.  In this case, I think we did have good reasons, and so we messed.

So let’s bring this around to our current conversation about who should give the shower. If moms and sisters start giving showers for their daughters and sisters, then they ought to have a good reason for doing so. (If women start throwing themselves showers, they had better have a good reason as well!) I’m not sure what that reason might be, but there may be a good one. And though I might flinch if I heard a mother was throwing a shower for her daughter, it most emphatically would not be because I was offended. Rather, I might flinch because I would be worried about the hostess. Oh dear. Does she realize that it might look/seem weird to some people? Does she know this is a bit of a faux pas? Historically taboo for the last hundred years?  But I would happily go to the shower. No problem.

Finally, I have to acknowledge to you all (in case you didn’t know) that I am well into my fifties, and like it or not, age makes a difference. My mom taught me this stuff, and it is in my bones. Many of you readers are much younger than I am, and you’ve never heard of such a thing. Not only do generations make a difference, but where you grew up makes a difference. In fact, it makes a very big difference.  According to Bekah, in England a baby shower is simply not done. Here in the US we shower like crazy. So there you go. That’s where I’m coming from.

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13 thoughts on “Messing with Manners

  1. Dear Nancy,

    This topic of manners and particularly, showers, is helpful to me as my older children are reaching the age for wedding/baby showers. I appreciate the counsel that you share from Protocol Manners and the gracious spirit of the author.

    Today in the mail we received a quarterly newletter from the church we attend. In it we saw that our pastor’s wife and young adult daughter are going to be hosting a wedding shower for their older daughter who lives in another state. All the ladies of the church are invited. Due to my recent reading of your blog I was curious how you would respond to this situation. Although most of the ladies in the church have either met or observed this older daughter on visits, we are not well acquainted with her. We are happy for our pastor, his wife, and their family in this happy event but it does seem a bit awkward to go to a shower hosted by her mother (dear lady). We know that none of us will probably go to or be invited to the wedding. It will be held out-of-state and the daughter did not grow up getting to know any of us since her parents just moved here in the last three years. I would not choose not to go because of the faux pas and I would not want to hurt the pastor’s wife by not showing up. I would also not feel it right to go to her and share that traditionally she should not be hosting this shower. In this case, it seems like the proper thing to do to attend and be gracious. What would you do?

    Mary Ann

  2. Mary Ann,
    I would recommend that you go to the shower and not say a word about any faux pas on any account! Because part of good manners is not pointing out bad manners in others….which is different from having a general conversation about it like we are here. So go and enjoy yourself and spread the good cheer all round!

  3. Nancy…I have already run into the situation where people outside the family were asking, “WHY isn’t her mother/sister/cousin throwing her a shower????” They simply did not know the older tradition and were actually more put out at the heartless thought that they would not step up and throw a shower for her.

    In fact, I would say that this is one of those things that is truly just being changed as we go. I’m guessing that–perhaps especially among the unchurched crowd?–they are simply not aware of the old traditional taboo on family shower throwing.

    For what it is worth (not much in any case), I do like the innovations I am reading about: open house style showers. Shower games can be fun, but then again, can be awkward and uncomfortable. As a young bride, I was deeply uncomfortable with everyone sitting around watching me open gifts, but then again, I was a new Christian who had never attended a shower in her life before her own!

  4. Here is my question, probably sort of unanswerable. What happened that made the feminine culture in your church one to not have it’s feathers ruffled at such drastic, unheard of changes? I’d put a smiley face there, but it really is a serious question. This joyful, thankful sort of free-wheeling is not at all common and I want to do what I can to help it along in our own circle. Women seem to be sometimes quite tied to the way it has been, even when the way it has been (which was certainly wonderful in it’s time) is a major burden on a few…particularly pastor’s or ministry leader’s wives. The open house shower idea is unbelievably appealing to me. It makes me want to jump up and down and cry with joy, honestly. Okay, enough of this rambly comment.

  5. Andrea,
    This just goes to show that where you grow up makes a difference. When I hear of a close relative hosting a shower, I feel bad and think, “Oh no! Didn’t any of her friends volunteer?”
    And, Bean, this shift must have happened in our church community about ten years ago. It was not, as I recall, an organized decision, but a natural adaptation that seemed to make everyone happy. It’s lovely because you can stop by and visit as long as you want and then press on. And women with smallish homes do not feel intimidated about hosting a shower because ladies come and go and spread out. So even if forty ladies show up, they don’t all appear at the same moment. This is helpful!

  6. I married into the Armenian communtiy in LA. They have taken the American tradition of showers and run with it. They believe that the family should do it. I tried to let people know that in America it isn’t done that way, but they just didn’t care. They also rent restaurants for the events, so really one would have to be an extremely good friend to go to that expense.

  7. Mary Ann,
    We’ve had a number of families in our church host receptions after the out-of-town wedding to introduce the new spouse to their friends and church family. A small replica of the cake along with other goodies, some video footage or continuous slide show of the ceremony, and a formal introduction all serve to help the bride and groom feel welcomed in the extended church family. Since the parents/family are the ones who have access to all the wedding stuff, they are the logical ones to host the reception. No mention is made of gifts (unlike shower invitations that tell you where the couple is registered), but folks who want to bring along a gift or card do. Not everyone does. Our culture is far less community oriented than it was fifty years ago, so these new adaptations are helpful, I think.

  8. Mary Ann,
    A reception for the bride and groom should most definitely be hosted by the parents, unless, of course, the parents live far away. In that case, it is nice for a friend to host a welcoming reception. This happens here when the wedding has been off on the other side of the country somewhere, and since we have lots of college students in our community, when they come back to town, it’s lovely to greet the new couple with a reception. Sometimes a “pounding” is arranged for a couple moving into their first home. This is where everyone brings a pound of something for their fridge or cupboards. It’s a fun variation on the traditional shower.

  9. My first baby shower ended up being held at my mother-in-law’s house. We knew about the rule, but the reasoning was that it was a church shower, i.e. it was going to happen anyway, somewhere, and was organized by my prayer group/parish. The organizers just needed a location with a large enough living room within a certain time frame and hers was the only one available or offered for the event. So, though it was at her house, she didn’t “throw it” at all – merely provided the location. I was glad she did, as the only other option at the time was a shower in a room in the church building – it’s been done, but is much less cozy and friendly!

  10. I think one thing to keep in mind is that whenever we go to question a tradition, we shouldn’t assume that the tradition is meaningless and/or worldly before we understand its roots. A lot of these traditions, even within etiquette, were formed from a Christian understanding of things we’re less conscious of. That doesn’t always mean they’re right — our forebears were susceptible to error and wrong emphasis just as we are. But it does mean that even if we can’t immediately see the roots of a standard, we should consider that there might be good reason for it and try to understand it, before we decide that we have a better grasp of biblically informed social expectations than “those people” did.

  11. And also, even if we come to understand that they had a really good, biblically informed reason for the standard, that doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t be flexible. In this world, there are competing legitimate interests especially when it comes to the little things. I just want to be careful that “trying to live biblically” doesn’t become a license for rejecting everything that came before on the assumption that they weren’t also trying to do that “back then.”

  12. Ladies,
    Thank you for your thoughtful suggestions. In the past we have had that type of reception for a couple from the church who married far away. It was a nice oppotunity to bless them and welcome the new spouse into our community.

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